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Macro Responses to Micromanagers

Remember the introduction to the song Getting to Know You from The King and I:
It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught.

Well, it turns out that the same thing goes for executive coaches.

A while back, I wrote an article taking a fresh and balanced view on the practice of micromanagement. The back story is that when the editor asked me to write the article I initially refused because it was such a negative topic for me. Then I found myself unexpectedly micromanaging and called back to say, "OK, I'll write it." I received quite a strong response to this article and four requests to reprint it in other newsletters.

But among the positive feedback, one reader’s e-mail motivated me to think even further. I have received permission to share our exchange for this article. Sharon wrote:

I first want to point out that you hit the nail on the head with the major downsides to micromanaging. As far as the rewards, well that leads me to believe you have never been micromanaged. Still I thank you for an article on a subject that I rarely see articles on. Unfortunately it isn't one I could share with my 'micro' manager boss since all she will get out of the article is she is right. Just look what it says under the “rewards”.

Her comments really struck me. Given my role advising leaders, I had indeed been writing to an audience of managers rather than those on the receiving end of micromanagement. I replied:

Dear Sharon,
First, I'd like to thank you for your valuable email. I have read it several times over the past weeks. The truth is, I have been micromanaged to the point of tears on several occasions. Actually, I would encourage you to share the article with your boss, precisely because it doesn't condemn the practice of micromanaging completely. Don't worry, she'll read the other parts too! My intention was to convey, "You can do this, but you had better look at both sides of what
you're getting in return." By sharing the article you gain opportunities to:

1)  Broaden her perspective on her management style. Precisely because it isn't going to "slam" her she might be open to both sides.

2) Open up a discussion about what you want and how you'd like to grow professionally.

While I didn’t know the exact situation, I developed and sent her the following four discussion points for sharing the article with her boss:

1) Could you focus on higher level responsibilities if you delegated more to me?

  • While there might be an initial learning curve, I am willing to put in whatever training time would be required. Please let me know how you feel I would need to develop in order to take on greater responsibilities.
  • What responsibility might you transfer to me starting in the upcoming month?

2) How can we raise our mutual confidence in my ability to make independent decisions? 

  • Both of us need to be confident in my ability to judge when to make independent choices and when to consult you. Some say, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” I have confidence in my discretion, but for you to feel comfortable delegating responsibility, it might be better to “ask permission." 
  •  Could we proceed with the mutual understanding that when in doubt I will err on the side of asking for your input and advice?

3) What communications practices would be most helpful to you?

  •  I’m going to start coming to meetings with my main points written out. I’d like your feedback on these agendas and how  I can make my meetings with you as effective as possible. 
  •  I plan to start writing concise status updates to raise questions efficiently and let you know how I’m progressing on projects. Would you prefer hard copy or e-mail? Would you prefer weekly or biweekly reports? Could we set up brief meetings by phone or in person to discuss the reports after you’ve had a chance to review them?

4) Are there any goals, processes, or organizational issues on which you would like my input? 

  •  If you present an issue or challenge, I would be glad to think about it and organize my ideas and responses for you. 
  •  If there is a project you want to explore that isn’t directly related to my job, but would help me advance professionally, I’d be open to discussing this with you.

Sharon replied:

Wow, thank you for your response. I have to admit, you have taken me by surprise. I didn't really expect a response and the fact that you took the time to share with me your thoughts behind writing this article is so appreciated.

You bring out a very valid point...one that I wasn't seeing because I was allowing the stress of the situation rule my reason. It was like a light bulb went off when I read your first point, something that should have been obvious, that yours is a more balanced approach to a dialogue I would have approached negatively and most assuredly would have closed any possibility for discussion. I can't say that I'm totally convinced that my boss would be open to any discussion regarding her management style but at least this approach wouldn't immediately throw up defensive barriers.

I would be honored for you to use my e-mail, it may help '"ight that bulb" for someone who is only seeing the negative like me!

To those readers who read the original article and wondered how to employ it on your own behalf, I hope this does indeed “light a bulb” for you to advance yourself, as you benefit your boss as well. As I experienced, sometimes an open exchange of ideas can be the basis for a brighter future.